August 2011, Week 4


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Wed, 24 Aug 2011 22:00:52 -0400
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By David Bacon

In These Times web edition


After years of 'silent raids' and federal workplace
audits, unions and community allies are going on the

BERKELEY, CA -- When the current wave of mass firings of
immigrant workers started three years ago, they were
called "silent raids" in the press.  The phrase sought
to make firings seem more humane than the workplace
raids of the Bush administration.  During Bush's
eight-year tenure, posses of black-uniformed immigration
agents, waving submachine guns, invaded factories across
the country and rounded up workers for deportations.

"Silent raids," by contrast, have relied on
cooperation between employers and immigration
officials.  The Department of Homeland Security
identifies workers it says have no legal
immigration status.  Employers then fire them. 
The silence, then, is the absence of the armed men
in black.  Paraphrasing Woody Guthrie, they used
to rob workers of their jobs with a gun.  Now they
do it with a fountain pen.

Silence also describes the lack of outcry on behalf of
those workers losing their jobs.  No delegations of
immigrant rights activists have traveled to Washington
DC to protest.  Unions have said little, even as their
own members were fired.  And undocumented workers
themselves have been afraid.  Those working feared
losing their jobs.  Those already fired worried that
immigration agents might come knocking on their doors
at night.

Over the last few months, however, a wave of protest
is starting to break that silence.  In Berkeley,
California, workers facing firings at Pacific Steel
Castings, the largest steel foundry west of the
Mississippi, have sought community support in a
fight to keep their jobs.  City councils in Oakland
and Berkeley have passed resolution asking Homeland
Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to back off
efforts to force the company to terminate them. 
Churches and immigrant rights activists have sent
her letters with the same demand.

In Los Angeles, 1400 janitors marched among the Bunker
Hill skyscrapers, blocking downtown traffic at lunch
hour.  They protested a wave of similar firings by Able
Building Maintenance, California's largest
privately-held building services contractor.

The two protest campaigns come after two years in
which dozens of other employers have fired workers in
response to DHS demands.  John Morton, head of the
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a
division of DHS, has made serial announcements of the
number of companies being audited to find
undocumented employees - citing figures from 1000 to

There is no master list of how many how many workers
have been fired.  Over the last two years, however,
it's at least many thousands.  In Minneapolis, Seattle
and San Francisco over 1800 janitors, members of SEIU
union locals, lost their jobs.  In 2009 some 2000
young women laboring at the sewing machines of
American Apparel were fired in Los Angeles.  At one
point Morton claimed ICE had audited over 2900

President Obama says this workplace enforcement
targets employers "who are using illegal workers in
order to drive down wages-and oftentimes mistreat
those workers."  An ICE Worksite Enforcement Advisory
claims "unscrupulous employers are likely to pay
illegal workers substandard wages or force them to
endure intolerable working conditions."  Curing
intolerable conditions by firing workers who endure
them doesn't help the workers or change the
conditions, however.

Instead, the administration's rhetoric has fed efforts
to blame immigrants for "stealing jobs" and for
undermining wages.  In a bid to oppose support for
Pacific Steel workers, one local city council member
wrote, "every job given to an undocumented immigrant is
a job denied to an American citizen," and "citizens
won't work for the low wages undocumented immigrants
will work for."

In reality, the DHS workplace enforcement wave is
focusing, not on low-wage employers, but on high-wage, and
often unionized ones.  Fired janitors around the country
are almost all members of SEIU.  Workers at Pacific Steel
belong to Local 164B of the Glass, Molders, Plastics and
Pottery Workers (GMP).  In this council member's own city,
dozens of workers were terminated at a Sealy mattress
factory, where they belonged to a furniture workers' local
of the Communication Workers of America.

There is a long history of anti-union animus among
immigration authorities.  Agents have set up
roadblocks before union elections in California
fields, conducted raids during meatpacking
organizing drives in North Carolina and Iowa,
audited janitorial employers and airline food
plants prior to union contract negotiations, and
helped companies terminate close to a thousand
apple packers when they tried to join the
Teamsters Union in Washington state.

But there's another reason why union companies are
targets.  They're easier.

All employers are required to have job applicants fill
out an I-9 form and provide identification and Social
Security numbers, which go into the employees' records.
In an "I-9 audit," ICE agents pore through those
records to identify undocumented workers.  They then
send the employer a letter listing the workers it must

In garment sweatshops and small restaurants,
however, finding and inspecting personnel records
is difficult, time-consuming and laborious.  On the
other hand, unions generally force employers to
keep records in good order, to ensure they adhere
to the pay levels, benefits and worker rights in
labor agreements.  In those companies, immigration
agents easily sweep in and build their case for

Employers have often found advantages in demanding
that their workers reverify their immigration
status.  At Able Building Maintenance, ICE targeted
475 workers during an I-9 audit in San Francisco,
and the company terminated them.  Then, in Los
Angeles, the company used the process to lower its
labor costs.  Every time Able took over a new
building from another janitorial contractor, it
demanded that the workers there provide new proof
of their legal status.  When some couldn't, the
company fired them and replaced them with new hires
at much lower wages and benefit levels.

These actions violated the intent of the union's
master janitorial contract.  That agreement says that
when one building service company is brought in to
replace another to clean a downtown building, it must
continue to employ the workers who have always done
that work.  The agreement provides workers some job
security in an industry where contractors change
constantly.  Although companies compete fiercely
against each other, they can't gain advantage by
firing high-wage workers and replacing them with
low-wage ones.

But that's just what Able is doing, by using
immigration status as a pretext to terminate
long-time janitors in LA high-rises.  And that's why
over a thousand workers marched through those same
buildings in protest.  They fear, not only that Able
will continue to fire them, but that other companies
will use the same tactic to lower costs, in order to
compete.  Workers at Stanford University made
similar protests, when one union janitorial
contractor was replaced by another.  After the new
contractor demanded that longtime employees reverify
their immigration status, 19 were fired.

At Pacific Steel in Berkeley, ICE gained access to
the company's I-9 and other personnel records in
February, and began its audit.  But union contract
negotiations had begun just weeks before.  In March,
the foundry's workers struck for a week, successfully
defending their medical benefits.  Conducting an
audit in the middle of a labor dispute violates an
internal operating procedure dating from the Clinton
administration. In May the union filed an unfair
labor practice charge against the company and ICE,
accusing them of violating the instruction in order
to punish union activity.

To win support for workers who might be fired as a
result of the audit, GMP Local 164B and local unions
pointed to the disastrous effect it would have on the
community.  "If these skilled workers are removed from
the foundry, the operation of the business will suffer
greatly," said Josie Camacho, executive secretary of
the Alameda Labor Council.  "If the foundry were to
close as a consequence, it would be an economic
disaster for the Bay Area.  The company and the
workers pay taxes that support local schools and
services, which cannot afford to lose money
desperately needed in these challenging economic

In addition to city council resolutions, many
elected officials, churches and immigrant rights
organizations have written to DHS voicing
opposition to the possible firings.  "These audits
affect workers in many other workplaces beyond
Pacific Steel," added Camacho.  "They could deepen
unemployment, and make recovery from the current
recession more difficult.  That should concern the
administration as it faces a national election in
2012."  Mike Garcia, president of United Service
Workers West, SEIU, which represents the Able
janitors, suggests that every labor council survey
unions in its area, to find out where the audits
and firings are taking place.

The Pacific Steel and Able protests mark a new level
of opposition in unions to the I-9 audits and firings.
"The union is responsible for representing and
protecting union members against any violation of
human rights," said Ignacio DeLaFuente, international
vice-president of the GMP.  In its effort to encourage
worker participation in their own defense, Local 164B
organized an immigration clinic in which a dozen
attorneys from legal aid organizations talked to
employees one-on-one to help them resolve their status
questions.  And as undocumented students did in their
campaign to pass the Dream Act, some workers began to
speak out publicly.

A rising tide of labor opposition to I-9 audits
will make waves in Washington DC.  Already the
firings are causing some unions to question support
for key elements of the comprehensive immigration
reform (CIR) bills that Congress has debated over
the past seven years, especially the proposals for
beefed-up workplace enforcement.

Almost all the CIR bills would increase audits and
penalties on employers for hiring undocumented
workers ("employer sanctions").  They include
mandating use of the E-Verify database, and a
national ID program, to make it easier for ICE to
find and fire people.  The Obama administration not
only supports the CIR approach, but it has
implemented many of the enforcement measures those
bills proposed.  As a result, firings have
skyrocketed in the last two years, and deportations
total over a million.

When sanctions were passed as part of the Immigration
Reform and Control Act in 1986, the AFL-CIO supported
them, despite significant local opposition.  Sanctions
were justified as a means to force undocumented workers
to leave the country, and to discourage others from
coming, a justification still used today by some
supporters.  Over the following 13 years, however,
unions saw sanctions used by employers to threaten and
fire workers when they tried to organize or enforce
minimum wages and labor standards.  After a growing
outcry, the AFL-CIO then reversed its position at its
1999 convention in Los Angeles.  Its new position called
for the repeal of employer sanctions, legalization of
the undocumented, and enforcing labor rights for all

Under the Bush administration, however, as CIR bills
were introduced with massive employer support, parts
of the labor movement began to call for the "fair
enforcement" of sanctions.  Some unions saw sanctions
as a means to get rid of workers viewed as "low-wage
competitors," while others saw support for sanctions
as a tradeoff that could lead to legalization for the

The CIR bills, and their limited legalization proposals,
all failed to pass Congress.  Firings of undocumented
workers, however, increased dramatically.  The Bush and
Obama administrations did not need Congressional approval
for more enforcement.  Many unions were paralyzed as a
result, finding it difficult to support increased
enforcement in CIR bills in Washington, and then oppose
that same enforcement when it led to the firing of their
own members.  The Pacific Steel and Able protests are a
sign of a growing challenge to this paralysis.

Earlier opposition came from Minneapolis.  There
SEIU Local 26 began to organize opposition to I-9
audits and firings, first of its own janitorial
members, and then of non-union fast food workers at
the Chipotle restaurants.  It held meetings of fired
workers, and organized demonstrations that included
a sit-in at a Chipotle outlet.

Their campaign included in its list of demands
that employers support immigration reform.  But
what kind of reform?  Unions are starting to
wrestle with this question.  The audits are a
product of the employer sanctions provision
contained in the 1986 law.  Without changing that
law to repeal sanctions, enforcement measures like
audits, E-Verify, raids and firings are

In the Bay Area, labor councils in San Francisco,
Silicon Valley and Alameda County have all passed
resolutions within the past year calling for the repeal
of sanctions.  Twelve years ago, the Alameda council
authored the original resolution that changed the
AFL-CIO position at its 1999 convention in Los Angeles. 
In a new resolution passed unanimously in June, the
council "reiterates its support for the immigration
reform proposal it first proposed in 1999, which was
then adopted by the AFL-CIO Convention."

The three CLC resolutions, also passed by the
national convention of the Labor Council for Latin
American Advancement, call for support for an
alternative to the CIR tradeoff, called the Dignity
Campaign.  In addition to repealing sanctions, that
proposal calls for an immigration policy based on
labor and human rights.  It includes scrapping trade
agreements that lead to poverty, displacement and
forced migration from Mexico and other developing

The Dignity Campaign proposal is not a viable proposal
in a Congress dominated by Tea Party nativists and
corporations seeking guest worker programs.  But just
as it took a civil rights movement to pass the Voting
Rights Act, any basic change to establish the rights
of immigrants will also require a social upheaval and
a fundamental realignment of power.  A janitors' march
in downtown Los Angeles, or city council resolutions
in northern California, may be only steps in that
direction.  But what counts is where those marchers
are heading.

For more articles and images, see  http://dbacon.igc.org


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